The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

Overview

The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's ...

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Overview

The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's "hanging paper." Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister's daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan - both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers - the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on "Murderesses' Row" as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins's favorites.

In the tradition of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal. Fueled by rich period detail and enlivened by a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage, The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the age and its sober repercussions.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This jaunty retrospective of two Jazz Age trials introduces us to the real-life originals of the killer ladies of the musical Chicago—and to the society that adored them. Journalist Perry (The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame) revisits the 1924 cases of Belva Gaertner, a swanky divorcée, and Beulah Annan, a beautiful married woman, both accused of shooting their lovers to death. They were the most photogenic on Cook County jail’s “Murderess’ Row” of defendants in a spate of woman-on-man killings that inflamed the press and captivated a public grown bored with gangland murders. (Perry’s third heroine is skeptical female reporter Maurine Watkins, who bemoaned the inability of all-male Chicago juries to convict killers with pretty faces.) The author gives an entertaining, wised-up rundown of the cases and the surrounding media hoopla, which the defendants and their lawyers cannily manipulated. (Annan hired a fashion consultant for court appearances and falsely declared herself pregnant to win sympathy.) Beneath the sensationalism, Perry finds anxieties about changing sex roles as feisty flappers and aggressive career women barged into public consciousness; his savvy, flamboyant social history illuminates a dawning age of celebrity culture. Photos. (Aug. 9)
Publishers Weekly
A series of murders committed by women in Chicago in the 1920s provide juicy material for drama in this racy history, as well as the musical. Perry paints a vividly detailed picture of the events with a range of viewpoints, from interviews with the murderers to police reports. Peter Berkrot has a deep and projecting voice that's easy to follow and enjoy. He handles the straightforward narrative smoothly, using pause and emphasis to highlight more important passages. If his female voices require more work, he excels at quoting newspapers and other firsthand accounts, cleverly mimicking their sensationalized, breathless tone. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 12). (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
A chronicle of the wild spring and summer of 1924, when Chicago was afflicted with a seeming epidemic of female murderers. The hit Broadway play Chicago has its roots in the night of March 12, 1924, when Belva Gaertner was arrested for drunkenly shooting her boyfriend Walter Law. The daily newspapers instantly seized on the story in part because Gaertner was the ex-wife of a well-known industrialist, but also because a female killer was an appealing target for Prohibition-era conservatism. The moralizing only intensified a month later, when Beulah Annan stood accused of shooting her lover-dancing to a jazz record while his body lay cold, some reported-and a young bohemian named Wanda Stopa was on the run from authorities for killing a man in jealous fury. Oregonian online features editor Perry (co-author: The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame, 2005) provides consistently entertaining back stories on these women and others in the Cook County Jail, but more interesting is the author's exploration of the sexist attitudes that turned the women on "Murderess' Row" into odd celebrities. (One female inmate was likely saved from hanging simply by making herself look more attractive at a court appearance.) Perry also captures the hypercompetitive newspaper culture that fueled the alleged trend, following the cases through the eyes of Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins. Breaking through a sexist newsroom culture to deliver slyly satirical-if not entirely accurate-dispatches on the women's trials, Watkins occasionally pushed the bounds of journalistic integrity to argue that Gaertner and Annan were guilty. After both were acquitted and public interest moved elsewhere, she abandoned journalism to skewer scandal-sheet culture in her play Chicago. In a similar manner, Perry critiques the newspapers for being ruthlessly eager to play loose with facts and reduce the women to news fodder. But his prose sometimes echoes the papers' pulpy tone, reflecting his comment in the endnotes that the media tended to overdramatize events. A lively history, though better at describing media sensationalism than the women who were caught up in its whirlwind. Agent: Jim Donovan/Jim Donovan Literary
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021970
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/5/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.54 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

DOUGLAS PERRY is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The San Jose Mercury News, Details, and The Oregonian. He is the online features editor at The Oregonian and the co-author of The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Thursday, April 24, 1924

The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.

The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women’s quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She’d greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage.

But that was when she was the undisputed “prettiest murderess” in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed. She knew that today, for almost the first time since her arrest almost three weeks ago, there wouldn’t be a picture of her in any of the newspapers. There was a new girl gunner on the scene, a gorgeous Polish girl named Wanda Stopa.

Depressed, Beulah chanced getting undressed. It was the middle of the day, but the stiff prison uniform made her skin itch, and the reporters weren’t going to come for interviews now. They were all out chasing the new girl. Beulah sat on her bunk and listened. The cellblock was quiet, stagnant. On a normal day, the rest of the inmates would have gone to the recreation room after lunch to sing hymns. Beulah never joined them; she preferred to retreat to a solitary spot with the jail radio, which she’d claimed as her own. She listened to fox-trots. She liked to do as she pleased.

It was Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish” woman on the block, who had begun the daily hymn-singing ritual. That was back in March, the day after she staggered into jail, dead-eyed and elephant-tongued, too drunk—or so she claimed—to remember shooting her boyfriend in the head. None of the girls could fathom that stumblebum Belva now. On the bloody night of her arrival, it had taken the society divorcée only a few hours of sleep to regain her composure. The next day, she sat sidesaddle against the cell wall, one leg slung imperiously over the other, heavy-lidded eyes offering a strange, exuberant glint. Reporters crowded in on her, eager to hear what she had to say. This was the woman who, at her divorce trial four years before, had publicly admitted to using a horsewhip on her wealthy elderly husband during lovemaking. Had she hoped to make herself a widow before he could divorce her? Now you had to wonder.

“I’m feeling very well,” Belva told the reporters. “Naturally I should prefer to receive you all in my own apartment; jails are such horrid places. But”—she looked around and emitted a small laugh—“one must make the best of such things.”

And so one did. Belva’s rehabilitation began right there, and it continued unabated to this day. Faith would see her through this ordeal, she told any reporter who passed by her cell. This terrible, unfortunate experience made her appreciate all the more the life she once had with her wonderful ex-husband—solid, reliable William Gaertner, the millionaire scientist and businessman who had provided her with lawyers and was determined to marry her again, despite her newly proven skill with a revolver. He believed Belva had changed.

Maybe she had, but either way, she was still quite different from the other girls at the jail. She came from better stock and made sure they all knew it. Even an inmate as ferocious as Katherine Malm—the “Wolf Woman”—deferred to Belva. Class was a powerful thing; it triggered an instinctive obeisance from women accustomed to coming through the service entrance—or, in this lot’s case, through the smashed-in window. Belva, it seemed, had just the right measure of contempt in her face to cow anybody, including unrepentant murderesses. She was not beautiful like perfect, young Beulah Annan. Her face was a sad, ill-conceived thing, all the features slightly out of proper proportion. But arrogant eyes shined out from it, and there was that full, passionate mouth, a mouth that could inspire a reckless hunger in the most happily married man. She’d proved that many times over. When Belva woke from her blackout on the morning of March 12, new to the jail, still wearing her blood-spattered slip, she’d wanly asked for food. The Wolf Woman, supposedly the tough girl of the women’s quarters, hurried to bring her a currant bun.

“Here, Mrs. Gaertner,” she’d said with a welcoming smile, eyes crinkled in understanding, “eat this and pretend it’s chicken. . . . It makes it easy to swallow.” With that, Katherine Malm set the tone. By the end of the week, the other girls were vying for the privilege of making Belva’s bed and washing her clothes.

To her credit, Belva adapted easily to her new surroundings. The lack of privacy didn’t seem to bother her. The women’s section of the jail, an L-shaped nook on the fourth floor of a massive, rotting, rat-infested facility downtown, was crowded even before her arrival, and not just because of the presence of Mrs. Anna Piculine. “Big Anna,” the press said, was the largest woman ever jailed on a murder charge. She’d killed her husband when he said he’d prefer a slimmer woman. Then there was Mrs. Elizabeth Unkafer, charged with murdering her lover after her cuckolded husband collapsed in grief at learning of her infidelity. And Mary Wezenak—“Moonshine Mary”—the first woman to be tried in Cook County for selling poisonous whiskey. Nearly a dozen others also bunked on what was now being called “Murderess’ Row,” and more were sure to come. Women in the city seemed to have gone mad. They’d become dangerous, especially to their husbands and boyfriends. After the police had trundled Beulah into jail, the director of the Chicago Crime Commission felt compelled to publicly dismiss the recent rash of killings by women. The ladies of Cook County, he said, were “just bunching their hits at this time.” He insisted there was nothing to worry about.

The newspapers certainly weren’t worried; they celebrated the crowded conditions on Murderess’ Row. Everyone in the city wanted to read about the fairest killers in the land. These women embodied the city’s wild, rebellious side, a side that appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming everything else. Chicago in the spring of 1924 was something new, a city for the future. It thrived like nowhere else. Evidence of the postwar depression of 1920–21 couldn’t be found anywhere. The city pulsed with industrial development. Factories operated twenty-four hours a day. Empty lots turned into whole neighborhoods almost overnight. Motor cars were so plentiful that Michigan Avenue traffic backed up daily more than half a mile to the Chicago River. And yet this exciting, prosperous city terrified many observers. Chicago took its cultural obsessions to extremes, from jazz to politics to architecture. Most of all, in the midst of Prohibition, the city reveled in its contempt for the law. The newly elected reform mayor, witnessing a mobster funeral attended by thousands of fascinated citizens, would exclaim later that year: “I am staggered by this state of affairs. Are we living by the code of the Dark Ages or is Chicago part of an American Commonwealth?”

It truly was difficult to tell. Gangsterism, celebrity, sex, art, music—anything dodgy or gauche or modern boomed in the city. That included feminism. Women in Chicago experienced unmatched freedoms, not won gradually—as was the case for the suffragettes—but achieved in short order, on the sly. Respectable saloons before Prohibition didn’t admit women; speakeasies welcomed them. Skirts appeared to be higher here than anywhere else. Even Oak Park high school girls brazenly petted with boys, forcing the wealthy suburb’s police superintendent to threaten to arrest the parents of “baby vamps.” Religious leaders—and newspapers—drew a connection between the new freedoms and the increasing numbers of inmates in Cook County Jail’s women’s section.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry

Copyright © 2010 by Douglas Perry

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  • Posted August 4, 2011

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    Girl Gunners, an intrepid Girl Reporter, and a little play called Chicago...

    The Girls of Murder City is a twofold history, telling both the story of the infamous girl gunners who captured Chicago's attention in the 1920s and of the intrepid girl reporter who covered their trials and turned her experiences into the Broadway phenomenon Chicago. In presenting the sensation that was Chicago's lady murderesses, Perry focuses his attention on two in particular that captivated the citizens of Chicago and stood out on Cook County's Murderess Row -- "Beautiful Beulah" Annan and Belva Gaertner. Belva stood accused of murdering a man purported to have been her lover in a drunken spat in a parked car in the dead of night; Beulah was accused of shooting a man thought to be her lover in her home when he threatened to leave her. If either of those stories sounds familiar, then it's probably because these twin crimes and their subsequent trials served as the basis for Maurine Watkins's wildly successful play Chicago. Perry introduces us to Maurine as she attempts to become a reporter for the Chicago Tribune on its police beat (and actually succeeds in doing so). Her first major assignment involves Belva Gaertner's case, and she becomes the main reporter following the trial of Beulah Annan as well. Maurine's journalism contributed to the Tribune's reputation as a "hanging paper", but more importantly it opened her eyes to the sensationalism and circus atmosphere of the criminal system in Chicago, in which criminals were becoming instant celebrities. Alternating between Maurine's scathing journalistic indictments of the two murderesses in the Tribune and the circus acts that were Belva and Beulah's imprisonment and trials, Douglas Perry presents us with a wonderful social history of crime and sensationalism in the Jazz Age. It has the easy readability and draw of other crime-related social histories like Erik Larson's Devil in the White City or Paul Collins's The Murder of the Century. The 2002 movie version of Chicago is one of my absolute favorite movies, and there were so many times where I could picture the action of Perry's narrative playing out just like I could picture the movie playing in my head ("They both reached for the gun!"). By the end of the book, I was hooked on the topic and wanted nothing more than to dust off my DVD of Chicago and pop it in to watch.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 4, 2011

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    Melissa@Must Read Faster

    My review: Have you seen the awesomeness that is the movie/play Chicago? Well this is the story of the women that inspired the story! They were insta-celebrities and all that they had to do was knock off a few annoying men! This book is brief history of some of the first well-known female murderers of the 20's, and the female reporter that covered some of their stories. Back in the 20's, when gangsters were feared yet adored, it was thought that women were incapable of murder. Unless a man made the do it! The thought that the weaker sex could be vicious enough to pop a cap in someone or stab someone was unthinkable! Then one day it was noticed that WOMEN were starting to do more violent crimes...GASP...getting arrested for killing their spouses or boyfriends left and right! (Not really but it seemed that way to some) What was this unusual turn of events? Everyone was intrigued and needed to know what was happening..thus newspapers flocked to the prisons to interview these lawless ladies and get their stories first! Enter Maurine Watkins, the woman that got the biggest scoop of them all and wrote the musical Chicago. She pushed through the boundaries and got the hard hitting stories that were usually reserved for men. Her employers thought her soft and feminine ways would get her in the good graces of the female criminals so she was put on their cases! This was a very interesting book to crack open and dive into! I enjoyed this little dose of history! The Jazz Age is a very chaotic and thrilling time in American culture! So many things were happening all at once! Women's roles in modern life were changing. Racial tensions were mounting. Prohibition was creating all sorts of troubles and criminals. This book was entertaining, thought provoking, and wonderful! Not my usual cup of tea but still very delicious nonetheless! I recommend it for the history buff, true crime buff, and anyone in between!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 4, 2011

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    Great for Quirky History Lovers!

    I'm a big musical fan (I can often be found belting out various Broadway tunes) and I love quirky history non-fiction books. I like books that focus in on some minute part of history that I've never known about before. The Girls of Murder City had been on my TBR list for awhile so when I got an opportunity to read the book through Unputdownables Early Reader group, I was ecstatic. This book tells the true story behind some of the women that inspired the musical, Chicago. For you all not in the Broadway know, Chicago is the story of two gorgeous women convicted of murder during the Jazz Age in well, Chicago (surprise, surprise).

    First off, I didn't realize that Chicago was based off of any true story so it was cool to learn that. The true story of the women is incredibly compelling. You have very differing cases between the women blessed with looks (many of them were let off) and the women who didn't have the looks to fall back on. The Girls of Murder City is also a story about the journalism during the 1920s, the height of the newspaper wars. You have newspapers covering these salacious stories of women killing people, most often their husbands or boyfriends being covered in a variety of ways by the competing newspapers out for the best and most gripping stories. The newspapers in Chicago fought against each other to provide the best (or at least most scandalous) coverage of these trials. The newspapers had the power to either glorify or condemn these women. In an age where newspapers are slowly losing their grip on their readership, it was sort of amazing to see this contrast of how it was back in the 1920s.

    The book also goes into a little bit of detail about how the musical came to be. Maurine Watkins, a young woman, became a reporter for one of the Chicago papers. While women reporters were uncommon, the women reporters who covered hard news like murders were even more uncommon. Maurine covers these murdererous women and almost creates sort of stories rather than hard news articles about these women. She eventually goes on to write a full play inspired by the women. Eventually her play is sold to Bob Fosse (Broadway extraordinaire) and Chicago became the musical that it is today.

    Perry does a wonderful job of bringing this little piece of history to life. The way that he writes the story really pulls you in. It's so interesting to see how sucked in the public got through these newspaper articles and how the papers tried to one-up each other over each story about the murdering women.

    Bottom line: This is a great non-fiction book and should be widely read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 14, 2010

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    Posted August 4, 2011

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